Sunday, September 1, 2013

Yea, Victoria

Though not a museum I thought I would talk about my most recent natural history experience, a visit to the world famous Devonian/Silurian site at Yea, Victoria.

Recently the National Dinosaur Museum has completed its ‘Dinosaurs Down Under’ road show. Having won a grant to participate in Australia’s National Science Week, the NDM was to visit 10 rural locations in NSW and Victoria, set up an exhibit at each location and have an international speaker (in this case the Berlin based, Hungarian palaeontologist, Dr Marton Rabbi) give a lecture or two to the townsfolk, before packing up and moving on.
Dr Rabbi's talk at Shepparton, Victoria.

Over a two week period our little road show visited Cootamundra, West Wyalong, Griffith (where I was born), Hay, Deniliquin, Echuca, Shepparton, Wangaratta, Lakes Entrance and Eden. At Wangaratta it became clear that the truck we had could not make the 4 hour drive over the Great Alpine Road (as it was winter and snowing) so I had to drive the long way round. This trip, almost all the way down to Melbourne, had the bonus of passing near Yea.

The township was first surveyed in 1855 and was named after Colonel Lacy Walter Yea, a British officer killed in the Crimean War. Fossils of strange looking plants were discovered there in 1875, but the importance of these fossils was not recognised until just before the Second World War (1935) when Isabel Clifton Cookson- an Australian Palaeobotanist- first described the species.
One of the best specimens on display 
 at the National Dinosaur Museum
in Canberra

At the time they were thought to be as old as the Silurian, though it’s now recognised the original site only dates back to the Devonian. Other sites have been found nearby that do indeed date back to the first date, meaning the Yea fossils are still of great historical importance.

So what are these fossils and why was I so keen to get there? Well, amongst a few other things are amazing specimens of Baragwanathia, considered the world’s oldest vascular (leafy) plant. Though the species has since been found in Canada and China, the Yea specimens are by far the best and most numerous. They are considered lycopods, a group that has over 1,000 living species today (such as club mosses and quillworts). They would grow into the largest plants of their day (the tree-like Lepidodendron) before being replaced by true trees, flowers and grasses.

Clearly visible are the small, hair-like
structures considered to be the
world's 1st leaves.
At Yea’s information centre (located at the back of Marmalade’s CafĂ©- try the homemade jam slice, it’s delightful) you can get a small pamphlet about the site and a map on how to get there. To quote the pamphlet ‘It is believed that the Baragwanthia plant formed a scrubby covering across what was once a tidal flat for an ancient ocean around 400 million years ago according to the best geological dating’.

For myself I’d have to say this is one of the most accessible fossils sites I have ever heard of. You just drive outside of town a few minutes, down Limestone Road, drive a few hundred meters to the tip of the hill and there it is, right alongside the road.

I pulled the truck up and began to hunt about along the open cuts, carefully searching for any signs of ancient life. Here and there were clear impressions, though impressions of what I have no idea.

One looked like a worms burrow to me, though it could just as easily been a prehistoric sock.

 Every hill had a cutting you can search through, and I was there during winter so there was little danger of coming across any of the nastier, still living inhabitants of the region. This is an important point and if you are thinking of visiting the area listen carefully, BEWARE OF SNAKES. High grass, good trees, thick bushes all suggest the best basking place for a cold snake is the exact places where you can see the fossils- and in this part of the country there would be plenty of the scaly terrors- so once again BEWARE OF SNAKES.

To show you how dangerous the area could be, I was so fixated on seeing a fossil in the rocks that I never noticed the numerous wombat holes covering the opposite side of every hill, so one last time, BEWARE OF SNAKES!

My trip was a short one as I still had hours and hours to go to the next location for the dinosaur tour, but it was still a thrill to walk along an ancient sea shore, back when life first started taking over the planet.
Surely one of the world's more picturesque fossil sites

The Wyoming Dinosaur Center

Nestled along the Bighorn River, located near the centre of Wyoming is the small town of Thermopolis, and in the middle of Thermopolis is the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. Driving into town you certainly get the feeling Thermopolis knows it’s on to a great thing as hints about the museum are everywhere.

There’s a dinosaur statue along the main road and dinosaurs signs everywhere. My favourite thing is the giant green dinosaur footprints stomping along the road to the museum’s front door…genius.

Driving about the museum I have to say it doesn’t look like much from the outside, basically it looks like a large airplane hangar- indeed that’s probably what the building is because the treasures inside certainly need a lot of space.

I work at another dinosaur museum that resembles this one in many ways. It’s mostly a single room that people get to walk around in, so I truly appreciate what this place does. The dinosaurs themselves create the galleries, as each is a spectacular as the next, so you find yourself looking in awe and one beast, only to turn about or walk a few steps and find yourself face to face with something else equally as inspiring. I really like the museum.

Amongst the amazing specimens on display are a Maiasaura feeding a nest of hatchlings, the first ever Albertaceratops, and the rare Therizinosaurus and a T.rex skeleton (Stan I do believe) attacking a Triceratops. Along one wall are a number of ichthyosaurs, a long necked elasmosaur and a pliosaur.

There are local species such as Maiasaura and the small saber-tooth cat, Dinictis.
There is a wonderful Asian display containing specimens such as a sprinting Velociraptor turning on a Protoceratops, a Tuojiangosaurus and a fearsome Monolophosaurus attacking the incredibly tiny sauropod, Bellusaurus.
There are the standard species, Coelophysis, and extremely rare species, ‘Jimbo the Supersaurus, an enormous 106ft sauropod that dominates the middle of the display and is the reason for the size of the building. This thing is huge (one of the largest sauropods ever mounted), and even better, you get to walk around it, a 360 degree view, and not even that you get to see it standing by some of the larger predators- and just how tiny they are by comparison.

Just as spectacular and important is one of the museums smallest specimens, the Thermopolis Archaeopteryx. As far as I know this is the only actually specimen of this iconic species in the US (and I’m proud to say the 3rd one I have seen after the Berlin and London specimens….which now that I think about it may actually be both counter-parts of the same specimen).

 This one is not behind bulletproof glass like the others and you can get rather close to it. The lighting also makes it easy to see the fossil in detail.

One display I really like and haven't really seen in any other museum is the display of eggs here. These have been peeled back and prepared in such a way that you can see the tiny little bones that had been protected inside the hell for millions of years.

Another great species is Bambiraptor, the first I have seen in all the museums I have ever visited.

One corner of the display has a large window through which you can watch people preparing fossils. Wyoming is of course a hotbed for dinosaur fossils and there are a number of operating quarries near the museum where specimens are collected for preparation. When I was there they were working on a new Camarasaurus. The museum also runs digs that the general public can join in for a fee, also there’s an opportunity for people to help prepare fossils and for students to do courses which I believe end with university credits (I would look into this properly rather then just trust my memory).

The museum is open 7 days a week, from 10-5, and is closed on some holidays. The prices also vary during different seasons so for opening and prices I suggest you check the museum’s website if you’re headed that way.

The sun sets early during winter in this part of the world and we had a long way to drive to our hotel so we were back on the road, leaving behind a museum full of some of the world’s most important fossils from all over the world. Indeed the Wyoming Dinosaur Center consistently tops the best dinosaur museum’s you can visit in the states, so if you’re planning a holiday to the west, I suggest this destination must top your list.